Christian nationalism is as old as Constantine and as new as MAGA. From the Roman emperor to the Trump slogan, the merging of religious and national identities has taken many forms.
Christian nationalism seeks power and privilege for followers of one faith. But, as Jesus warned, what does it profit a person to gain the whole world but lose one’s soul (Mark 8:36)?
Constantine’s conversion did not spiritualize the empire, says historian Peter Heather in his new book, Christendom. Just the opposite: It produced the Romanization of Christianity — religion as servant of the state.
American Christians, too, forfeit the soul of their faith when they try to link it with secular power.
But the discrediting of faith is only half the damage. Christian nationalism distorts both faith and democracy.
Christianity becomes unrecognizable as the way of Jesus when it gives cover to white supremacy and acts of violence. People who think that to be a good American one must be a Christian forsake the nation’s ideals of equality and religious liberty. They embrace intolerance, dividing the favored from the second-class.
In “a nation with the soul of a church,” as G.K. Chesterton once called the United States, Christian nationalism is rising — partly because Chesterton’s description is less true today, prompting attempts to impose minority views on an increasingly secular society.
“The frequency of violent acts inspired by Christian nationalism and a resurgence in attempts to legislate and govern from a position of Christian nationalism has been on a dramatic uptick,” said Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, in 2021.
Christian nationalism is not limited to the violent fringe or the realm of politics. In an interview with Religion News Service, sociologist Andrew Whitehead said the majority of U.S. evangelical Protestants may not hold overtly Christian nationalist beliefs, but they accommodate that attitude.
Christian nationalism is not necessarily linked to white supremacy or white privilege. But ideas of American and Christian exceptionalism often dovetail with nostalgic hopes to restore an American culture dominated by a particular kind of Christian.
Anabaptists belong among people of faith who push back against Christian nationalism. Anabaptist support for religious liberty draws strength from our history as a persecuted minority. Antiracism further motivates us to reject any movement toward a culture that privileges white Christians.
What can Anabaptists do? We posed the question to Drew Strait, associate professor of New Testament and Christian origins at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. He will teach a course this fall on “Resisting Christian Nationalism with the Gospel of Peace” and is writing a book, Strange Worship: A Guide for Resisting White Christian Nationalism with the Way of Jesus, due out in 2024. He offered three suggestions, condensed here.
Public biblical interpretation. We need to talk publicly about Scripture’s message to bring peace, justice and salvation to all flesh. The Bible is a point of rare common ground for advocates and opponents of Christian nationalism. But progressive Christians have yielded to conservative evangelicals much of the symbolic capital of Christianity. If we are concerned about biblical authoritarianism, we need to reclaim the Bible in the public square.
The whole life of Jesus as counternarrative. Power worshipers follow a political mascot, MAGA Jesus. The gospel of MAGA Jesus includes personal salvation but excludes salvation through Jesus’ whole life. Preaching and teaching his entire life — the gospel of peace, inclusion and love of neighbor — is our most effective counter to the Christian nationalist narrative of resentment and fear.
Countering radicalization with community. Radicalization lurks in the shadows of isolation. This is especially true as traditional collectives, including churches, decline and people look to social media for community. To counter violent extremism, the community that congregations provide matters. Building spaces for friendship and community is a small but significant act of nonviolent resistance. By disrupting isolation, we create spaces for dialogue across polarized differences.
“To counter white Christian nationalism effectively,” Strait says, “we need to recognize that idolaters of power are objects of God’s love, too.”